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Lent – it’s the very devil!

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Then was Jesus led up of the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted of the devil – Matthew 4:1ff

THE old devil writes to the young devil in C S Lewis’s The Screwtape Letters – which I recommend highly – ‘Remind your Christian that devils are comic figures in the modern perception. Suggest to him a picture of something in red tights and persuade him that, because he cannot believe in that, he cannot believe in you.’

The devil is still around. He is the old enemy. In the Old Testament a satan was originally an obstacle placed in someone’s way by God, for some good purpose. Read for instruction the charming and wonderful fable about Balaam and his talking donkey in Numbers Chapter 22. Am I not thine ass upon whom thou has ridden all the days of thy life? In the Book of Job, Satan is one of the sons of God who acts as an accuser, a sort of counsel for the prosecution, come to tell God that Job loves God only because God has made Job rich. And again, in today’s story of Jesus’s temptations in the wilderness, the devil is like a sharp-witted barrister, punningly quoting the Law to his own ends: If thou be the Son of God, command that these stones be made bread. In the New Testament Greek, the pun takes the form of a little rhyme: Command that these lithoi become artoi. The little stones in the wilderness were actually shaped like small loaves, just to add to the confusion of someone tired out and dizzy with hunger.

But does the devil exist? I would rather say that he subsists, parasitical on what’s good. He is like the shadow of a person which can appear only because the real person exists. The devil is logically necessary because as soon as you say one thing you imply its opposite. Teenager: I’m going out, dad. Dad: No you’re not! Good implies the possibility of bad. And this, incidentally, is the beginning of the answer to the so-called problem of evil. The very existence of good demands the possibility of not-good. How could virtue be virtuous if vice were impossible? There are lies only because first there is truth. 

I was amused to learn that Bertrand Russell only once got his friend G E Moore to tell a lie, and that was by a trick. He asked: Moore, do you ALWAYS speak the truth? Moore answered (falsely): No. We find a child adorable when she tells the simple truth – right up to that moment on the bus when she asks in a voice for everyone to hear: Mummy, is that the fat lady you can’t stand?

This confrontation with the devil in the gospel, right at the beginning of Jesus’s ministry, tells us that there are ultimate differences between right and wrong. It’s one of the devil’s tricks to get us to deny that there are such differences, to convince us that ethical judgements are only matters of personal opinion. The devil has tried this trick for aeons and he still tries it today. Chesterton once attended a meeting of Hampstead Theosophists. One told him: ‘There is no right or wrong, good or evil; just the gentle upwards movement of the universe.’ Chesterton replied: ‘If you don’t know the difference between right and wrong, good and evil, how do you know the difference between up and down?’

In a very lucid paragraph on Paradise Lost, C S Lewis exposes again this satanic lie:

‘Satan’s monomaniac concern with himself and his supposed rights is a necessity of the satanic predicament . . . He has wished to be himself, and to be in himself and for himself . . . To admire Satan then is to give one’s vote not only for a world of misery, but also for a world of lies and propaganda, of wishful thinking . . . Better to reign in hell than serve in heaven . . . This fails to be roaring farce only because it spells agony.  Satan WANTS to go on being Satan.’ There is a horrifying, dismal contemporary echo of this appalling sentiment right at the end of Samuel Beckett’s novel The Unnameable: ‘You must go on. I can’t go on. I’ll go on.’

There was – I must call it an amusing – reminder of this sort of tosh in the Times once when John Calder the publisher was reminiscing about Samuel Beckett. He claimed Beckett was the greatest writer of the 20th century. He said he shared Beckett’s detestation of God-worship. I think he must have preferred devil worship, because he recounted with fond memory how he met Beckett in 1955 and how the two of them used to walk round Montparnasse all night talking about suicide and the pointlessness of life. Round one to the devil, eh? Then Calder said that what he most admired about Beckett was his kindness in the face of life’s pointlessness. Hmm. But if life is really pointless, there’s no point in being kind either, is there?

If there’s to be a competition for the greatest writer of the last century, I prefer T S Eliot who said exactly the opposite: There is no life not lived in community and no community not lived in the praise of God. Whereas the devilish notion that there is nothing except my personal feelings is a malignant disease which has afflicted humankind, one way or another, throughout history. It always leads to mental incoherence and spiritual decay. So, when Hamlet says: There’s nothing either good or bad but THINKING makes it so – you know he’s heading for a nervous breakdown, chronic indecision and the contemplation of suicide and murder.

There IS an objective moral order. In his lovely book The Stripping of the Altars, Eamon Duffy tells us how in the late Middle Ages people would go out into the fields carrying the Cross, how they would sprinkle the ground with holy water, and process the Blessed Sacrament. The reformers condemned these practices as abominable superstitions – and thereby only revealed their crass literal-mindedness. The medieval folk were not so stupid as to think that their rituals were magical incantations to guarantee a good harvest. They were informed country people who knew about agriculture. They must have noticed that some years gave good crops and others bad whether the rituals were observed or not. 

Rather, those medieval ceremonies were an instinctive, intuitive means of proclaiming the unity of the natural order with the moral order: The starry heavens above and the moral law within, as Immanuel Kant said. This is a unity which the devil always tries to divide. He has been served in his devilry by some tenacious disciples: David Hume in his Treatise; A J Ayer in Language, Truth and Logic in which he declared that moral statements were only expressions of emotion; and now of course in the babel of post-modernism which insanely claims that nothing means anything.

So not even post-modernism, then!

Roger Scruton wrote: The devil has one message, which is that there is no first person plural. What does this mean? Well, it means that the devil, through the cynics and nihilists who have always been with us but who now depressingly dominate our culture and threaten to destroy our civilisation, tries to convince each individual that he is in himself alone sublimely free. The devil is the Father of Lies and this is his Big One. Because really freedom means freedom to act purposefully. And this involves others. Therefore I say, Get thee behind me, Satan! My freedom derives from my being part of a community with institutions, morality, law and culture. The quality of my freedom therefore depends on the quality of those institutions – what the Bible calls The Kingdom.

Those cultural, philosophical and artistic gurus and deadbeats who enjoy endless talk about the world as meaningless and of the attractive option of suicide are, in their contempt for humanity, at one with the suicidal psychopaths who flew airliners into the Twin Towers. Our moral freedom cannot be taken for granted. The price of our moral freedom is eternal vigilance. We have to argue and fight for freedom with the same argumentative determination which Christ showed in his wilderness battle with Satan. 

This is what Lent means with its Watch and pray.

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Peter Mullen
Peter Mullen is a Church of England clergyman, writer and broadcaster

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